EDITOR’S NOTE—Nobody's Business
Ever meet anyone in the alcohol business? I haven't. I know a lot of people in the spirits business, in wine making, in liquor stores. David Weitzenhoffer, the Lennon–bespectacled former sommelier at Felidia, founded Acid Inc. to distribute wine. Rebecca Chapa, the former sommelier at Jardinière, opened Tannin Management to consult on wine events. Everyone in the wine business makes a living on alcohol and no one wants to talk about it.
The silence is partly political. Alcohol serves as the basis for taxes on wine. It's measurable, and for some, that implies value. It is no secret that the titans of finance fed themselves on aged sirloin and high–octane Napa Valley cabernet until the crash. Or that the most vocal attendees at the annual ZAP tasting in San Francisco seek out the highest alcohol zinfandels.
There are now partisans of low–alcohol wines, who believe anything over 13% is crass. And partisan politics is taking its toll on the harmony in the wine trade. Many sommeliers, frustrated by California winemakers' claims that their fruit doesn't ripen properly at restrained potential alcohols, have joined the winemaking game themselves, seeking to produce wines with a subtler balance.
As if to defend the financier's taste turf, the Wall Street Journal's new wine columnist, Lettie Teague, began her tenure with an article on how alcohol delivers flavor. More is good, more or less.
Suddenly there's a lot of noise around alcohol. So here at Wine & Spirits, we decided it was time to look more closely at the facts and started asking around. We contacted Jamie Goode, a scientist who runs wineanorak.com, to ask him what role alcohol plays in wine. What do we actually know?
We asked Alan Tardi, a talented chef and wine writer living in Piedmont, to work with chefs and sommeliers on a practical project. How would they adjust a recipe to work with different levels of alcohol in a wine? We asked Fiona Morrison, an MW working in Pomerol, to reflect on the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux—one that has seen some of the highest alcohols and the highest prices ever.
The further we delved into our research, the more we realized the issue was balance, not alcohol. Thinking about the wines we admire and the wines we drink, balance, harmony, distinction and expressiveness all come before any individual component of a wine. It's the whole, not the parts, that should catch our attention.
So rather than take sides or attempt to mediate the argument, we looked at balance. We highlighted more than 100 wines from this past year's tastings that struck us as the most harmonious for their particular alcohol level (or, at least, the level stated on the bottle). We interviewed the people who made those wines, pushing them to speak candidly about alcohol and balance. They talk in a language of seasons and harvests, but if you read between the lines, you'll find some fascinating insights. In the process of assembling this issue, we learned more about what we love in wine than from any other in the magazine's history. We hope it provides some insights into your own taste in wine.